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The History of Headwraps: Why They Are More Than Just an Accessory

This fashion article teaches the history of headwraps. Learn the unexpected backstory of headwraps and how you can wear them for any occasion!

During the early 1700's headwraps emerged as not only a protective style for women's hair but as an accessory to represent social status. As time progressed, headwraps were used as a dress code for enslaved individuals from Africa. Today, women of all ages wear headwraps for fashion and practicality. Although they're used a bit differently in modern times, one of the main benefits throughout history is the protection headwraps provide, shielding every Queen's natural hair, braids, and locks against harsh weather. 

 

The history of headwraps during slavery

Headwraps originated in the sub-Saharan African region. Used in the Caribbean and South America, they were initially worn to protect women's hair from natural occurrences that could cause damage, like sunlight and lice. They remained a staple throughout Africa, including Egypt, before they also migrated to European cultures. 

In the south during antebellum America, slaves were required to wear headwraps to represent the lowest social class level. In addition, South Carolina passed the Negro Act of 1735, while under British rule, that restricted African slaves from wearing clothing other than "Negro cloth," which included kerseys (course linen usually used in English work attire during the 5th century), blue linen, and other fabrics that weren't luxurious in quality. 

They were also used to cover the hair texture of female slaves, as they were rumored to be a distraction to the male slave masters. Additionally, the cloth headdress requirement was a way to keep mixed-race slaves from passing as white. Finally, as the stipulation of headwear continued, American slaves figured out a way to turn what was once forced upon them into a way to communicate with each other through patterns that slave masters weren't able to decode. 

 

 

The history of African prints and patterns

The patterns seen in African headwraps date back to the mid 19th century when the dutch manufacturing process created imperfections while attempting to dye waxed cloth to create a pattern known as batik. When the machine created splotches all over a piece of fabric that was supposed to have an intricate design, the Dutch rejected the pattern and were not willing to continue using the method. African soldiers sent to war by the dutch were informing their African families and peers about the new way of creating prints. The Dutch decided to pass along the flawed fabric to African citizens, who loved the prints! They appreciated and admired the imperfection of the splotches and decided to adopt the process, using it to create patterns for dress and headwraps. 

 

How headwraps are worn in today's society

Today, headwraps continue to be used as a protective style and for representing heritage through fashion. In the modern age, headwraps are showcased as a proud symbol of individualism that was born, with a piece of cloth initially used to demean and restrict enslaved women. As a result, headwraps have gone from women wearing them as a part of their streetwear to the runway, with fashion designers showcasing them as their models adorn the runways during New York and Paris Fashion Week. Although the adaptation of African culture through headwraps within the fashion industry can be seen as a nod to the beautiful versatility, it, in some ways, can be viewed as an attempt to commercialize the look and wash away its history. In recent years, celebrities like Lupita Nyong'o have raised more awareness of the symbolism of African headdresses to educate and reclaim the power of the intricate adornment. 

 

 

Currently, throughout Africa, headwraps are worn as a symbol of marital status. For example, the Yoruba people practice this tradition, noting the direction a woman tilts the end of her headwrap. If the end tilts to the left, she's single and married if tilting to the right. 

 

 

Different ways to style a headwrap

A headwrap can be worn with jeans and a t-shirt or a formal dress. You can mix and match prints to create a festive look. You can also wear a headwrap with joggers and sneakers! The brightest of colors and prints can be worn with solid colors. Or, you can wear a white or black solid headwrap with busy printed pants, in a balloon style. When wearing your headpiece, you can cover your entire head, or you can cover your hair in a headband style. Your headwrap can be wrapped high, or you can wrap the fabric around your head in a lower ponytail style that will tie around your hair. 

 

 

If you're casually wearing your headwrap, try wearing a headwrap made of Ankara African print with bold, two-tone elements in bright blue and berry. You can create a front knot and wear your look with your hair flowing since only the top of your head will be covered—style with a graphic t-shirt and skinny jeans. Make sure your t-shirt has elements of similar colors. You can add nude or black heels. 

 

 

If you're styling your look for casual attire that is a bit more dressy, try wearing a headwrap with deeper colors that are also vibrant. For example, you can try wearing a red wrap color against a black or brown base, creating an intricate print. Pair this with a tiered midi dress that stops a bit above the ankle. You can wear your dress in one shoulder, halter style cut that shows your back with a cut-out design. You can choose a dress that also has textured features, as well, like embroidery, peplums, or ruffles. This way, your look is dressy but still casual enough for an outdoor barbeque or picnic. Add small gold-tone hoops with your dress outfit, or wear bold, tiered earrings. 

 

 

If you want a look that's more polished for special events, try wearing a brighter headwrap with a yellow base and an accent color like plum-purple. This look pairs well with a high collar shirt and tailored skinny pants. Try accenting your look with neutral makeup that has a matching plum lip. You can also add coordinating accessories that have a bold design. Try wearing circular earrings that are large enough to showcase a beaded pattern fully, but that doesn't distract from your headwrap. Finally, wear your wrap in a large bow that sits on the side so that the rim and crown of your head are covered. This way, you're able to show the complete printed design of the headwrap's fabric. 

 

 

Headwraps have an extended history of protection and versatility of styles. They have been worn as a symbol of low-class slavery but were soon turned into a positive representation of strength throughout the years. Wearing a headwrap is a simple way to add a vivid accessory to your look, and it's also functional for protecting your hair, braids, and locks against severe weather.